A Parsi who was a fire fighter!
L. S. Mehervanjee, who passed away on Tuesday at 81 of illness following a paralytic stroke, was one of Bombay’s most famous Fire Brigade chiefs. I knew him well, although he was the Fire Chief before my time, between 1978 and 1983. And I knew him because Mehervanjee made it his business to get to know most civic and crime reporters, also editors, of newspapers in Mumbai. He had the habit of dropping in on us unannounced on April 14 every year for a cup of tea. This is the anniversary of the Bombay Dock Explosion. And he was our reminder to the terrible tragedy that befell the Fire Brigade during the World War II. But for him, the date might have slipped by unnoticed.
You remember, don’t you, the story of the cargo vessel S. S. Stikene blowing up at Victoria Docks on April 14, 1944? Its 1,395 tonnes of explosives and ammunition reduced ships in the Bombay Harbour to scrap. And Bombay itself was devastated for miles around Victoria Docks. The Bombay Fire Brigade lost 66 firemen in that massive blaze and another 85 were injured for life. All of its fire engines and appliances were also destroyed but for one fire-tender with a turntable ladder that survived. It is now a museum piece and kept proudly at the Byculla Fire Headquarters.
Mehervanjee was a junior, 19-year-old fireman at the time of the Bombay Dock Explosion. And he got injured in the first blast on the ship. Admitted to the G. T. Hospital, he felt the building shake with the second explosion at the docks. “I felt even more scared then,” he used to always tell me. This was his story every April 14, after he paid a visit to the Fire HQ to participate in the memorial service held for the firemen who got killed in that tragedy. I liked him immensely. And although I knew the story by heart too, I used to patiently hear him out. It was not as if he was forgetful, but I always got the impression that Mehervanjee’s mind was somewhere far away, perhaps fighting some blaze. I understand he attended the prayer ceremony this year too, though he was already frail and fading away, the body weak and exhausted and the voice lost of its words. But the conscience was strong. It brought him to the Fire HQ.
He was quite an active little man even during his advancing years. Built like Fred Astaire, small and slight, and with sparkling eyes and light, dancing feet. By the time I got to know him, all his fire-fighting years were over, so Mehervanjee lived on the memories of his years in service. I remember one story he loved to narrate. When he became a fireman, Mehervanjee was faced by a terrible dilemma.
As a Parsi, he worshipped the fire; but now as a professional fireman, he was required to fight it all the time. “What was I to do,” he asked me. I already knew the answer. One of the British firemen told him, “That fire is a sacred fire that you are worshipping, and this is a killer fire that you are fighting.” That was that. Mehervanjee gave it no more thought.
And I am glad he didn’t, for Bombay would
not have had the only Parsi to hold this distinguished post then. Apart from his holding this high office with pride and dignity, Mehervanjee was also a fine and genteel citizen, full of old world charm and habits. My favourite memory of him is more recent. When the Express Towers’ penthouse went up in flames in the 1990s, Mehervanjee drove up in a glittering red fire engine attached with the prestigious Simon Snorkel ladder. As the fire engine rolled to a halt at Nariman Point, its flashing lights and wailing siren dying down, he leaped out before the assembled press photographers. I wondered what he was doing there. It turned out the current Chief Fire Officer was on leave and out of the city. So L. S. Mehervanjee decided to come and give the firemen some moral support. He must have been in his 70s then. But sprightly and full of life. He was that kind of man. A Parsi, and still a fireman. Farewell, friend. And R.I.P.
Original article from Afternoon D.C.